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Deeper look into fire unit's woes due

Commissioners order a full examination of the county department, stung by revelations of office porn, sexual harassment and work rules abuse.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published May 19, 2005


TAMPA - The county fire department's woes started leaking into public view last summer, and they just kept coming.

Pornography on office computers and complaints of sexual harassment. Allegations of work schedule abuses by a select few, and office affairs between married employees.

Wednesday, County Commissioner Ronda Storms convinced five fellow commissioners that it is time to stop the department's "death by a thousand cuts."

The commission voted 6-1, with Ken Hagan dissenting, to have County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee examine problems plaguing Hillsborough Fire Rescue and its management. They are to come back to the commission with a recommendation for fixing those problems. No time frame was set.

"You need to get your staff under control," Storms told Bean. "Fix it before it implodes irreparably."

Stressing that the "rank and file does an outstanding job," Storms nonetheless suggested the county administrator set up a hotline or schedule visits with employees so that they can disclose what they know.

"I don't want to find out this stuff by reporters," Storms said.

The department's first major scandal broke last summer, when then-county fire Marshal Donald Goff abruptly retired amid an FBI inquiry into his Internet activities involving child pornography.

Goff pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal charges of possessing child porn and transferring obscene materials to a minor. He is serving a 37-month sentence at a federal prison in Texas.

According to a 2002 department memo, Goff had pornographic Web links on his computer at work and visited personal ad sites during work hours.

Fire Chief William Nesmith hired former Clearwater fire Marshal Randy Hinder to replace Goff. But in March, Nesmith fired Hinder, who had been accused of sexually harassing two Fire Rescue employees. Nesmith said Hinder "promoted mistrust and suspicious feelings among his employees."

Last month, the longtime chief of the Seffner-Mango volunteer fire station quit after county fire officials discovered that he posted pictures of himself nude and in uniform on an adult Internet dating site.

Bradley Price, 48, also was accused of sexually harassing a subordinate female firefighter whom he showered with gifts including stuffed Tigger dolls. He maintains he did nothing wrong.

Hagan, Wednesday's lone nay vote, called the fire department inquiry "premature" because it could conflict with a reorganization of county departments.

The inquiry comes as county officials negotiate with the union for its two-year contract, which expires in September.

Storms said union infighting has exposed some of the things that concern her - including several firefighters' use of a longstanding contract provision that lets them swap work shifts.

The County Attorney's Office is looking into whether a handful of the department's 750 employees abused the longstanding "exchange of time" provision outlined in the union contract.

Personnel records show eight firefighters used the provision more than the maximum 120 hours per month, working a fraction of their scheduled shifts but getting full pay and benefits.

One firefighter is thought to live much of the year in North Carolina, and he has gotten other firefighters to cover many of his shifts, Storms said.

"That is not right," she said.

Commissioner Tom Scott was flabbergasted to learn firefighters can get out of working as many as 120 hours in a month.

"One hundred and 20 hours?" Scott said. "And they get paid? What is this?"

Nesmith wants to reduce the maximum hours exchanged to 48 per month, but union negotiators so far have rejected the proposal.

One of those negotiators is union political affairs director George Sucarichi, identified by county officials as the worst abuser of the time exchange.

Sucarichi, who makes $28.35 an hour as a fire captain, was paid for putting in nearly 7,600 hours between Nov. 1, 2002, and April 27, 2005 - but actually worked about 700 hours.

He has not worked a regular shift at all this year, records show.

Wednesday, county commissioners asked Nesmith whether he has called Sucarichi in to work. Nesmith said he can't make Sucarichi come in because he has not exceeded this month's 120-hour limit.

Asked by the Times when he plans to work a regular shift, Sucarichi replied: "We'll see."

"My schedule at this point, with negotiations going on, is day to day."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 19, 2005, 01:00:57]


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